Here’s the punch line up front: This is easily the most exciting release so far this year and certainly the best of the trio of Reel People releases by Oli Lazarus, founder of Papa Records. For nearly a decade the soulful house meets acid jazz hybrid of this UK soul label has seen a virtual who’s who of indie artists featured on the productions of Second Guess, Seven Ways to Wonder, and now …Presents Golden Lady. Angela Johnson’s “Can’t Stop,” Dyanna Fearon’s “Butterflies,” Vanessa Freeman’s “The Light,” Sharlene Hector’s “The Rain” get joined by new delights, including: Darien’s “Sure,” Tony Momrelle’s “Star,” and Choklate’s “The Tea.” It’s rare for a modern project to not only effectively contrast itself with the desolate wasteland of terrestrial radio R&B and soul, but to also have the musical heft to serve as a shimmering beacon of light for what is still possible. Reel People Presents Golden Lady shines bright enough to light the entire Black music horizon.
The album opens with a little known gem from a relatively obscure 2008 release entitled Music for a Saturday Evening by BSTC (Black Stone Theater Collective); “Love It feat. JL” bursts through the speakers with an unstoppable tempo and a rhythmic drive that sets the joyous tone infecting the rest of the album. The spare keys and high hat opening the smooth number unfold to reveal swirling EWF horns and an infectious percussion groove that JL and the band’s supporting tenors ride to a glorious finish. It is a hidden indie jewel deserving of rescue on this bigger platform. Seattle’s Choklate’s ‘80s disco neo-classic, “The Tea,” from her sophomore project To Whom It May Concern is similarly and rightly saved here too. As good as the reclaimed “Love It” and “The Tea” are, they prove but two of many delectable confections worth gorging on.
The star of the album is Tony Momrelle, whose voice and approach has much improved in the years since his 1999 solo project, Freetime. Stints as the featured artist on the internationally known Incognito (largely replacing Chris Ballin as their lead male vocalist of the last decade) and the lesser known, but no less excellent Lungau Big Band, have filled out Momrelle’s lighter Stevie Wonder tones to something more comfortably his own. He is featured on no less than three originals and one cover, including “Star,” “Golden Lady,” “Tell Me Why,” and “80’s Love feat. Shezar.” The latter two are brisk, mature R&B affairs that display Momrelle’s supreme vocal dexterity on complicated melodies and keep momentum nicely moving along (“80’s Love,” in tempo, may move a tad too briskly in what is a song worth savoring). “Star” proves a worthy spotlight of Momrelle’s growth and dynamism as a performer, and there are two remixed versions included for what is clearly the album’s high note. The classic up-tempo love song is laid to a dance carnival of guitar, horns, percussion and strings that rouse a passionate declaration of lover worship in every throaty chorus. The hook rings in the ear with powerful sincerity while the feet can’t help but move, particularly on the full-bodied ‘90s industrial house approaches of Rasmus and the jazzier RP’s Club Mix on the remixes. A more subdued, sinewy “Golden Lady” gets a fine Brazilian jazz treatment of the Jobim and Mendes type that serves Momrelle’s more understated approach to a song more powerfully performed by Frank McComb and originally by Wonder himself. At this point, with performances as moving as “Star, “virtuosic as “Tell Me Why,” and smartly interpreted as “Golden Lady,” there is no credible reason for Momrelle not to be an international star--or at least better known.
Momrelle is not without peers on …Golden Lady. That the Reel People projects have repeatedly spotlighted Darien Dean aka “Darien” to high praise is no surprise given the easy, liquid nature of his flowing tenor. “Sure” keeps the Darien/Reel People batting average at a perfect 3 and 0. On the Afro-Latin jazz merger vaguely reminiscent of Wonder’s “Another Star,” Darien effortlessly plays and dances in Reel People’s magical tropics and is rewarded with a sumptuous chorus that gets at the heart of many of our unsure lives. The deft arrangement caters to Darien’s strengths and at the closing surrounds the sweet spot of his earnest voice with enough harmonic play and counterpoint to keep one salivating for just a few more bars. African performer, Renn, brings a much needed authenticity to the Afrobeat and Nuyorican Soul of “Nights in Africa,” one of the many dance numbers cropping up about the Motherland of late; only this one feels real. It’s a beautiful progression on a thread that can goes back to Fela Kuti and classics like Angela Bofill’s “Over the Moon and Over the Stars,” Rotary Connection’s “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” or newer UK joints like Siji’s “Fantasy.” Not to be outdone, Simon Grey brings up the rear with a modern touch on the spacey, synth-heavy “The Gallactica Suite,” an otherworldly jam that has enough gravitas to make Norman Connors envious.
Reel People Presents Golden Lady has only one chink in an otherwise perfect armor with the curious “It’s Hard” featuring Restless Soul Band; a promising song that has an unfinished, demo quality to it in its pacing, vocals, lyric and mix. One song has never been enough to derail an A+ project, and the chink here isn’t deep enough to offend the near perfection of this gift of a project, one we are happy to be bestowed. Finally, we have a summer soundtrack to celebrate with. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson